Community collaborations: extreme heat exposure reduction through long term relationships with Chelsea and East Boston
For years, the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) has fostered collaborations with local communities to better understand and address health needs, challenges, and opportunities for innovative solutions. As an academic pillar in the Boston community, these collaborative efforts aim to work in conjunction with surrounding communities to positively form relevant and catered health improvements to tend to their unique needs. In practice, striking a balance between academic merit and cultural relevance kindles trust, efficacy, and stability within communities.
Building trust and local partnerships
The long-standing relationship between Boston University (BU) and the City of Chelsea, Massachusetts, exemplifies the power of meaningful partnerships at a local level. It was a connection that the university actively worked to build and strengthen since 1988, which required critical work on both ends to obtain the bond that exists today.
The Chelsea & East Boston Heat (C-HEAT) study is one of the many initiatives and projects assembled on the foundation of this partnership. In recent years, the City of Chelsea and East Boston was declared one of the environmental justice communities by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Based on specific demographic criteria (low median income, minority populations, foreign-born, low English proficiency), they showed several health vulnerabilities that were not seen in other areas. These cities also suffer from inequitable budget cuts that more affluent parts of Massachusetts are not subjected to.
In the absence of natural landscapes and greenery, the city of Chelsea and East Boston absorb and re-emit heat from the sun at a higher rate. These concentrated areas are referred to as heat islands. Consequently, communities have high exposure to adverse outcomes and more difficulty dealing with extreme heat events. With climate change well underway, these urban heat islands are more impacted by intense heat and have less ability to adapt to increasing climate temperatures than other areas.
In recognition of this vulnerability, BUSPH researchers focused on climate change impacts partnered with Environmental Chelsea Organizers (ECO), the youth group at GreenRoots, to form the Chelsea & East Boston Heat (C-HEAT) study in the summer of 2021. This collaborative research project aims to study health concerns related to extreme heat conditions within eight of the most vulnerable populations residing in East Boston. According to the Climate Ready Boston Vulnerability Assessment, these susceptible groups in the City of Chelsea are as follows:
- Older adults
- People of color
- People with limited English proficiency
- People with low/no income
- People with disabilities
- People with chronic/acute illnesses
- Outdoor workers
Using their findings as a guide, the partnership now works to build the capacity of these communities to adequately respond to extreme heat events with direct engagement by stakeholders and community members.
What is extreme heat?
According to Climate Ready Boston, extreme heat is classified as:
Heat is a chronic hazard, a stress that the city faces every year. As average temperatures rise and the frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves increase, heat mortality rates will also rise. Temperatures are hottest in areas of the city that experience the urban heat island effect, but on very hot days, the entire city is at risk for the health impacts of extreme heat, especially those with health or other physical challenges, such as older adults or those with medical illness. The heat will increasingly stress the city’s energy supply and related infrastructure as people seek ways to cool down.
Deeper data collection methods
The C-HEAT project relied on the relationships BUSPH and GreenRoots built with the community over the years. These close community ties allow the project team to dive deeper into their research questions and be more thorough in their data collection than an organization that came in without previous relationships.
The C-HEAT project focuses on three goals:
- To consider factors of locations and populations at higher risk for heat-related illness and identify potential resources.
- To analyze personal and home exposure to heat: what are the physical, social, economic, and environmental factors contributing to extreme heat exposure?
- To engage city officials and other stakeholders: raise awareness of heat effects within the communities surrounding Chelsea.
In an article, co-principal investigator and BUSPH researcher, Madeleine Scammell, explains, “our goal in this study is not so much to document the pattern as it is to seek a solution…We hope to learn about the experience of heat, thermal comfort, and coping mechanisms, so we can test solutions.”
To collect and measure data from indoor environmental exposures, C-HEAT worked with private households throughout Chelsea and East Boston. The project team collected data from study participants through the use of temperature monitors for their homes and through personal temperature devices such as FitBits to monitor heat exposure. Data collected were studied to understand how heat impacts participants’ health and sleep and how their unique bodies adapted to temperature changes, such as extreme heat wave experiences.
C-HEAT also sought the City of Chelsea’s permission to install temperature sensors in various outdoor locations (trees, parks, rooftops, etc.), which recorded temperatures throughout the summer of 2020. Data collected from these efforts are being used to map an understanding of existing urban heat islands in Chelsea and East Boston and how extreme heat creates detrimental living conditions for residents. In addition to measuring the temperature, sensors collected information on relative humidity and dew points throughout the area of study.
Goals of the C-HEAT project
The project’s primary aim is to build capacity within these communities so they can better respond to extreme heat events by considering heat exposure among the most vulnerable populations. The study works directly with Chelsea and its stakeholders to discover solutions that work for them and include evidence-based research to ensure the best possible outcomes for building healthier communities.
To incorporate health equity in adaptation measures and reduce burden, it is necessary to invest in these communities, and not just financially. The C-HEAT project has modeled commitment to redressing the balance of power and efficacy by prioritizing Chelsea community partners and encouraging community participation.
Since implementing the study, the team of C-HEAT researchers and collaborators have worked on various campaigns for data collection and temperature sampling. Their fieldwork yielded informative data on trends in ambient and surface temperatures of public spaces and homes that can be used to inform their continued effort to build the capacity for climate-resilient communities in Chelsea. The study’s final results will be used to help design heat island interventions in the Chelsea area in the coming years.
How companies can be part of the solution
Companies serving these communities can become part of the solution by helping fund heat mitigation programs. To learn more about how your company can become part of the solution, contact idea hub [LINK].
Madeleine Scammell, DSc, associate professor of environmental health, studies unequal exposure to heat and its health consequences, from Nicaragua to her home city of Chelsea, MA, where she sits on the Board of Directors for GreenRoots and has served on the health board for ten years. Her research is community-based, with a focus on developing research methods that incorporate community perspectives using the tools of epidemiology and risk analysis.
Patricia Fabian, ScD, associate professor of environmental health, Dr. Fabian’s research spans the fields of environmental health and engineering, respiratory infectious disease transmission, system sciences, and geographical information systems (GIS), with a focus on asthma, indoor air, housing and other aspects of the built environment. She co-directs this project with Dr. Madeleine Scammell and is interested in understanding the role housing plays in exposure to heat in order to design equitable adaptation strategies.
The deep-seated mistrust of outsiders makes it difficult for researchers or organizations to help create positive change without first slowly building the relationships that lead to the trust needed to ensure communities are getting the resources required to improve the health of their communities.
“Climate change is a slow-motion disaster for some, and a not-so-slow disaster for what we call ‘frontline’ communities—the most vulnerable people and places who have most often contributed the least in terms of emissions that are exacerbating the greenhouse effect,” said Scammell.